LANDOVER, Md. - The St. Louis Rams roll into the nation's capital Sunday with a winless record, a new coach and a team that is struggling in every statistical category - except punting. | NFL page | U Pick 'Em
Donnie Jones is booming away, probably because he's getting so many chances. He's leading the NFL with an impressive 52.7 average.
And the Washington Redskins? Sure, they're one of the hottest teams in the league, but their rookie punter, Durant Brooks, is at the absolute bottom of the pile with a mere average of 39.3.
So, attention, St. Louis Rams fans seeking a silver lining: Fourth down is your friend.
Of course, right now, it appears to be the only friend.
The Redskins (4-1) are favored to win by two touchdowns, a stunning turnaround for a team that has played the underdog role nearly all season and was widely picked to finish last in its division. Players and coaches spent the week telling cautionary tales - and some that sound like tall tales - to make sure no one is thinking of the Rams (0-4) as a patsy.
Defensive coordinator Greg Blache, with a straight face, even trotted out the line that St. Louis could run the table and go 12-4.
"This is a football team that's like a ticking time bomb," Blache said. "It's going to explode at some point, and I hope it's not here this weekend. This is a real test for us to see what kind of football team we are, to see if we're mature enough to handle this kind of situation. This is one of the scariest things as a coach, you kind of go around, whistling in a graveyard at midnight. You know there's danger out there, and you're really worried about it."
It helps that many on the Redskins roster have firsthand experience with upset humiliation. The Tennessee Titans came visiting with an 0-5 record two years ago and stunned the Redskins in what was Vince Young's first win as a starting quarterback.
"Who better to upset right now than the Washington Redskins, who, all of a sudden, have everybody jumping on the bandwagon?" Redskins running back Clinton Portis said. "Why not come in and upset us? So we've got to play with the mind-set that they're coming in for an upset. We've been the underdog for weeks, so hopefully in the locker room our mind-set is that we're still the underdogs."
That's not an easy sell.
The Redskins are playing textbook winning football under coach Jim Zorn. They've yet to turn the ball over on offense. The defense, despite injuries to several starters, has faced offenses currently ranked Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 9 - and held each to its lowest yardage total of the season. Portis is averaging more than 100 yards per game. Washington is outscoring opponents 38-10 in the fourth quarter; the Rams have been outscored 56-10 in the fourth.
Zorn has pushed nearly all the right buttons for the last month. Now he's needs the one that says "no letdown."
"I don't think we're taking this game as, 'Let's look at the record so we can just sort of enjoy this,"' Zorn said. "It's a matter of not looking at the record and just looking at the video. You see good athletes."
The Rams do have good athletes, and it's up to new coach Jim Haslett to make them into winners - or at least more respectable losers. St. Louis dropped its first four games by an average of 26 points. Overall, the team has lost eight in a row, including the final four games of last season.
But, first, Haslett had to deal with more rudimentary tasks. Promoted to the job after Scott Linehan was fired during last week's bye, the former New Orleans Saints coach had to get accustomed to being in charge again. Asked if it was like riding a bike, he said: "At least when I get on a bike I know where the pedals are and can get going."
"There's some things you forget," Haslett said a few days ago. "Like today somebody said, 'Where are we practicing at?' (I said) 'I think outside.' You think about the field conditions and just think like that, but it's all coming back pretty fast."
If nothing else, Haslett's experiences with the Saints in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has given him plenty of practice at dealing with adversity.